Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly says the federal government’s forthcoming Indo-Pacific strategy will boost efforts to fight meddling by foreign powers in Canadian affairs.
Her comments followed warnings to Parliament from Canada’s spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, about the Chinese government’s influence campaigns in this country.
“We will do more to tackle foreign interference,” Ms. Joly said in a speech at an event hosted by the Asia Pacific Foundation and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy on Wednesday.
In her address, Ms. Joly offered a preview of the yet-to-be-released strategy, a blueprint for diversifying and deepening trade in the Indo-Pacific region, which stretches from North America to the Indian Ocean. She said the strategy will call out China as an increasingly disruptive global power – a reversal of the government’s previous policy of avoiding confrontation with the world’s second largest economy.
But she said Canada must continue to trade with China, even though it is autocratic and increasingly assertive, because of the sheer size of its economy.
Goldy Hyder, president of the Business Council of Canada, said the government’s new policy is based on a “realistic assessment of risks and regional tensions, with a candid recognition Canada must continue to work with China on global priorities such as emissions reductions.”
He added that Canadian businesses are pleased that Ottawa is aligning its China policy more closely with that of the United States, which has declared China to be an economic and military threat to the Indo-Pacific region.
The government has been quietly formulating its Indo-Pacific strategy since 2020. Ms. Joly promised the full strategy would be launched within one month.
Last week, Adam Fisher, director general of intelligence assessments at CSIS, warned a Commons committee that China is the “foremost aggressor” when it comes to foreign interference in Western countries, and that it works within their political systems to “corrupt” them. Mr. Fisher added that Beijing looks to “interfere domestically in all respects. That includes in certain elections and ridings.”
Absent from Ms. Joly’s preview speech on Wednesday was any mention of proclamations by fellow senior government ministers about restricting trade with authoritarian countries such as China. Innovation Minster François-Philippe Champagne told a Washington audience in October that Canada wants “a decoupling, certainly from China, and I would say other regimes in the world which don’t share the same values.”
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, also in October, said Canada should embrace “friend-shoring” by ending dependency on authoritarian states such as China for vital products and standing up for fellow democracies being bullied by Beijing.
Ms. Joly did not use words such as “decoupling” or “friend-shoring” on Wednesday. “I am not into door closing, I must say. I am into open doors,” she said.
She responded carefully when Peter Loewen, director of the Munk School, asked her whether Canada would take into account the “democratic performance” or human rights records of foreign countries before deciding on trade agreements or engagement with them.
“We need to have tough conversations, but meanwhile we indeed need to make sure we have strong trade relations,” Ms. Joly said.
The Chinese embassy in Canada accused Ms. Joly of damaging China’s reputation. Her speech, it said in a statement on the embassy website, “contained a lot of negative contents related to China that distorted the truth, exaggerated the so-called ‘China threat’ and discredited China’s image, which constituted a gross interference in China’s internal affairs.”
The embassy urged the Canadian government to “return to the right path conducive to achieving win-win cooperation.”
When Ms. Joly was asked at Wednesday’s event whether Canada’s trade engagement with China should depend on Beijing’s level of respect for human rights, she talked about the implications for Canadian companies doing business there. “We need to engage at different levels, but China right now poses a geopolitical risk, and the business community needs to know it,” she said.
Guy Saint-Jacques, who was the Canadian ambassador to Beijing from 2012 to 2016, said entrepreneurs should see the Minister’s remarks as a warning.
“While the strategy does not talk about decoupling, there is a clear message for companies doing business in China, the risk of doing business,” he said.
He added that Ms. Joly is making a “clear break from the previous engagement policy with China,” and said he was encouraged that Canada will be working more closely with the U.S. and other allies in the region.
David Mulroney, who preceded Mr. Saint-Jacques as ambassador to China, said Ms. Joly’s comments played down the threat Beijing represents today. “Simply describing China as ‘disruptive’ radically understates the problems we face,” he said.
He added that he finds it surprising that a strategy under development for so long is not yet ready, especially since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will be travelling to Asia later this month.
Canadian Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Perrin Beatty said he’s glad Ms. Joly has signalled an intention to keep working with China where necessary. And he said he was encouraged by her talk of deeper relations with the rest of the region, including India.
“This region holds great potential for Canada, including for Canadian businesses,” he said.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre told a news conference in Vancouver he would have to see the full Indo-Pacific strategy before commenting on it.
“I haven’t seen any evidence of action from this government to protect our democracy from that kind of foreign interference,” he said. “No foreign government should have any influence over our elections or our future.”
He said there is a need for a government that stands up for human rights and freedoms and protects Canada’s interests “in an increasingly dangerous world.”